The new recommendations by the panel Deal created (Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform) regarding overhauling the state’s juvenile-justice system expand upon the proposals made earlier by the same group on adult criminal justice and continues the same basic theme: Reserve bars-and-guards environments for the truly dangerous or those who have done terrible things, strengthen community-based rehab programs for those with no violent offenses, give judges more room for variation in sentencing — and more options on what approach to take.
Add in such other Deal favorite causes as the creation of drug courts and it is easy to see why some members of his own party are getting worried that he is one of those bleeding-heart Democrats in Republican penny-pinching wolf’s clothing. Indeed, Deal started his long political career as a Democrat, although of the “Blue Dog” variety considered a genetic variation of fiscal-frugality hunting packs.
More likely Deal is simply enough of a bottom-line guy in tight budget times to recognize the considerable upfront savings of changing penal psychology, with the present “throw away the key” policies having gotten totally unaffordable, plus of an age where he is “old enough to know better” and remember what the purposes of the justice system were before it turned rather unjust because of excessive reliance on the “hang ’em high” mentality.
IT MAY DO the governor’s mission little good, knowing the political mindset of the Georgia majority, to point out that his views and those of President Obama in his “Man of the Year” interview in Time magazine line up almost perfectly on this. In the president’s opinion:
“My attitude is that when you rape, murder, assault somebody, that you’ve made a choice; the society has every right to not only make sure you pay for that crime, but in some cases to disable you from continuing to engage in violent behavior.
“But there’s a big chunk of that prison population, a great huge chunk of our criminal-justice system that is involved in nonviolent crimes. And it is having a disabling effect on communities. Obviously, inner-city communities are most obvious, but when you go into rural communities, you see a similar impact. You have entire populations that are rendered incapable of getting a legitimate job because of a prison record. And it gobbles up a huge amount of resources. If you look at state budgets, part of the reason that tuition has been rising in public universities across the country is because more and more resources were going into paying for prisons, and that left less money to provide to colleges and universities.”
It has long been plain that Deal hopes to make this reform the “signature” of his time as the chief executive. He knows it will take all of his first term (through 2014) just to get the laws and psychology changed and then all of a hoped-for second term (through 2018) to ride shotgun on getting it to happen.
THIS SURE beats “Go Fish” as a legacy although, realistically, Georgia about now needs at least a dozen different chief executives all with similar pet projects in such as education, transportation, water security, taxation reform and so forth.
Actually, all Deal is doing is trying to go back to the way things were before the “two-strikes and you’re out” gang took over policy making. There was a time, as those of the governor’s age group remember, when the now-billion-dollar Department of Corrections was not a Department of Confinement and young offenders went to reform schools instead of detention centers.
That’s clearly what Deal wants to restore and, even if it didn’t always work much better than the current approach at least it sure didn’t cost as much. A cell home for an adult runs about $18,000 a year; for a juvenile around $91,000 per bed. Georgia now has the fifth highest number of its citizens in such facilities in a country that has the largest number of prisoners in the world ... by a mile. And that doesn’t even count the numbers in the county jail holding tanks. Many of them are there for fairly trivial stuff or at least behaviors far more of a threat to themselves than others.
The governor knows that this change makes a good sales pitch to legislators weary of watching tax revenues circling the drain to maintain what they see as a cesspool, even though many of them and their constituents belong to the school of “spare the rod and spoil the child.” He correctly suspects that “no more taxes” trumps using added taxes to buy more paddles. He can even point to such as Texas, five years deep into a similar dollar-saving strategy with big-buck savings even as its assembly-line death row runs at full speed.
AND HE CAN safely ignore, for his time in office at least, what he also doubtless knows: In the long run, if done correctly, the effort to salvage youth and adults who have mildly or moderately gone astray would cost a lot more than has ever been spent on the effort. The same holds true for such as mental health — a not entirely unrelated field.
Also yet to be addressed is interrupting what is known as the “school to prison pipeline” on which U.S. Senate hearings were recently held. This involves student discipline being handled through suspensions (often leading to dropouts and idle-minds trouble) or referrals to law enforcement for doing stuff that some of Deal’s age may remember being rather routine behavior. Such crackdowns are also heavily applied to minority children (in Georgia, 68 percent of cases involve blacks) but that’s simply a disturbing related concern.
Successfully changing direction back to what it was regarding criminal/juvenile justice will likely be somewhat easier than actually getting the job accomplished, which will likely take decades.
One suspects Deal knows this. He’s been in elective government leadership continuously since joining the Georgia Senate in 1980. That’s 32 years of gaining awareness that passing laws and policies is not the same thing as having them work as intended.
Also, in this justice arena the governor, while he has a marked tendency to surround himself with cronies and yes-men that make it difficult for him to learn of or entertain new ideas, on this question he needs ask for no expert opinions. He qualifies as one himself. Not only does he have a law degree but before entering politics he was a criminal prosecutor, a judge in the Northeastern Judicial Circuit and a juvenile-court judge.
LET’S GRANT that he knows what he is talking about and knew what his panel of similarly-minded experts would be recommending. Everybody in constant contact with all aspects of crime and punishment in Georgia has long known the status quo was tending to do more harm than good and needing of a reversal of approach.